The Perpetuity of the Law
Matthew 5:17. “Think not that I am come to destroy the Law or the Prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. 18. Verily, I say to you, Till heaven and earth pass, one iota or one point shall not pass from the Law, till all are fulfilled. 19. Whoever then shall break one of these least commandments, and shall so teach men, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whoever shall have done and taught them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Luke 16:17. “Now it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than for one point of the law to fail.”
Matthew 5:17. Think not With regard to the perfection of his life, Christ might justly have maintained that he came to fulfill the law: but here he treats of doctrine, not of life. As he afterwards exclaimed, that “the kingdom of God is come,” (Matthew 12:28) and raised the minds of men with unusual expectation, and even admitted disciples by baptism, it is probable, that the minds of many were in a state of suspense and doubt, and were eagerly inquiring, what was the design of that novelty. Christ, therefore, now declares, that his doctrine is so far from being at variance with the law, that it agrees perfectly with the law and the prophets, and not only so, but brings the complete fulfillment of them.
There appear to have been chiefly two reasons, which induced him to declare this agreement between the law and the Gospel. As soon as any new method of teaching makes its appearance, the body of the people immediately look upon it, as if everything were to be overturned. Now the preaching of the Gospel, as I mentioned a little ago, tended to raise the expectation, that the Church would assume a totally different form from what had previously belonged to it. They thought that the ancient and accustomed government was to be abolished. This opinion, in many respects, was very dangerous. Devout worshipers of God would never have embraced the Gospel, if it had been a revolt from the law; while light and turbulent spirits would eagerly have seized on an occasion offered to them for entirely overthrowing the state of religion: for we know in what insolent freaks rash people are ready to indulge when there is any thing new.
Besides, Christ saw that the greater part of the Jews, though they professed to believe the Law, were profane and degenerate. The condition of the people was so decayed, every thing was filled with so many corruptions, and the negligence or malice of the priests had so completely extinguished the pure light of doctrine, that there no longer remained any reverence for the Law. But if a new kind of doctrine had been introduced, which would destroy the authority of the Law and the Prophets, religion would have sustained a dreadful injury. This appears to be the first reason, why Christ declared that he had not come to destroy the Law. Indeed, the context makes this abundantly clear: for he immediately adds, by way of confirmation, that it is impossible for even one point of the Law to fail, — and pronounces a curse on those teachers who do not faithfully labor to maintain its authority.
The second reason was, to refute the wicked slander which, he knew, was brought against him by the ignorant and unlearned. This charge, it is evident, had been fastened on his doctrine by the scribes: for he proceeds immediately to direct his discourse against them. We must keep in mind the object which Christ had in view. While he invites and exhorts the Jews to receive the Gospel, he still retains them in obedience to the Law; and, on the other hand, he boldly refutes the base reproaches and slanders, by which his enemies labored to make his preaching infamous or suspected.
If we intend to reform affairs which are in a state of disorder, we must always exercise such prudence and moderation, as will convince the people, that we do not oppose the eternal Word of God, or introduce any novelty that is contrary to Scripture. We must take care, that no suspicion of such contrariety shall injure the faith of the godly, and that rash men shall not be emboldened by a pretense of novelty. In short, we must endeavor to oppose a profane contempt of the Word of God, and to prevent religion from being despised by the ignorant. The defense which Christ makes, to free his doctrine from slanders, ought to encourage us, if we are now exposed to the same calumnies. That crime was charged against Paul, that he was an apostate from the law of God. (Acts 21:21) We need not, therefore, wonder, if the Papists endeavor, in the same manner, to render us odious. Following the example of Christ, we ought to clear ourselves from false accusations, and, at the same time, to profess the truth freely, though it may expose us to unjust reproaches.
I am not come to destroy. God had, indeed, promised a new covenant at the coming of Christ; but had, at the same time, showed, that it would not be different from the first, but that, on the contrary, its design was, to give a perpetual sanction to the covenant, which he had made from the beginning, with his own people.
“I will write my law, (says he,) in their hearts, and I will remember their iniquities no more,” (Jeremiah 31:33-34.)
By these words he is so far from departing from the former covenant, that, on the contrary, he declares, that it will be confirmed and ratified, when it shall be succeeded by the new. This is also the meaning of Christ’s words, when he says, that he came to fulfill the law: for he actually fulfilled it, by quickening, with his Spirit, the dead letter, and then exhibiting, in reality, what had hitherto appeared only in figures.
With respect to doctrine, we must not imagine that the coming of Christ has freed us from the authority of the law: for it is the eternal rule of a devout and holy life, and must, therefore, be as unchangeable, as the justice of God, which it embraced, is constant and uniform. With respect to ceremonies, there is some appearance of a change having taken place; but it was only the use of them that was abolished, for their meaning was more fully confirmed. The coming of Christ has taken nothing away even from ceremonies, but, on the contrary, confirms them by exhibiting the truth of shadows: for, when we see their full effect, we acknowledge that they are not vain or useless. Let us therefore learn to maintain inviolable this sacred tie between the law and the Gospel, which many improperly attempt to break. For it contributes not a little to confirm the authority of the Gospel, when we learn, that it is nothing else than a fulfillment of the law; so that both, with one consent, declare God to be their Author.
18. Till heaven and earth pass Luke expresses it a little differently, but to the same import, that it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than for one point of the law to fail. The design of Christ, in both passages, was to teach, that the truth of the law and of every part of it, is secure, and that nothing so durable is to be found in the whole frame of the world.
Some persons indulge in ingenious refinements on the word till, (heos) as if the passing away of the heaven and earth, which will take place on the last day, the day of judgment, were to put an end to the law and the prophets. And certainly, as “tongues shall then cease, and prophecies shall be abolished,” (1 Corinthians 13:8) I think that the written law, as well as the exposition of it, will come to an end; but, as I am of opinion that Christ spoke more simply, I do not choose to feed the ears of readers with such amusements.
Let it suffice for us to hold, that sooner shall heaven fall to pieces, and the whole frame of the world become a mass of confusion, than the stability of the law shall give way. But what does it mean, that every part of the law shall be fulfilled down to the smallest point? for we see, that even those, who have been regenerated by the Spirit of God, are very far from keeping the law of God in a perfect manner. I answer, the expression, “shall not pass away”, must be viewed as referring, not to the life of men, but to the perfect truth of the doctrine. “There is nothing in the law that is unimportant, nothing that was put there at, random; and so it is impossible that a single letter shall perish.”
19. Whoever then shall break Christ here speaks expressly of the commandments of life, or the ten words, which all the children of God ought to take as the rule of their life. He therefore declares, that they are false and deceitful teachers, who do not restrain their disciples within obedience to the law, and that they are unworthy to occupy a place in the Church, who weaken, in the slightest degree, the authority of the law; and, on the other hand, that they are honest and faithful ministers of God, who recommend, both by word and by example, the keeping of the law. The least commandments is an expression used in accommodation to the judgment of men: for though they have not all the same weight, (but, when they are compared together, some are less than others,) yet we are not at liberty to think any thing small, on which the heavenly Legislator has been pleased to issue a command. For what sacrilege is it to treat contemptuously any thing which has proceeded from his sacred mouth? This is to sink his majesty to the rank of creatures. Accordingly, when our Lord calls them little commandments, it is a sort of concession.
20. He shall be called the least This is an allusion to what he had just said about the commandments: but the meaning is obvious. Those who shall pour contempt on the doctrine of the law, or on a single syllable of it, will be rejected as the lowest of men.
The kingdom of heaven means the renovation of the Church, or the prosperous condition of the Church, such as was then beginning to appear by the preaching of the Gospel. In this sense, Christ tells us, that “he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John,” (Luke 7:28) The meaning of that phrase is, that God, restoring the world by the hand of his Son, has completely established his kingdom. Christ declares that, when his Church shall have been renewed, no teachers must be admitted to it, but those who are faithful expounders of the law, and who labor to maintain its doctrine entire.
But it is asked, were not ceremonies among the commandments of God, the least of which we are now required to observe? I answer, We must look to the design and object of the Legislator. God enjoined ceremonies, that their outward use might be temporal, and their meaning eternal. That man does not break ceremonies, who omits what is shadowy, but retains their effect. But if Christ banishes from his kingdom all who accustom men to any contempt of the law how monstrous must be their stupidity, who are not ashamed to remit, by a sacrilegious indulgence, what God strictly demands, and, under the pretense of venial sin, to overthrow the righteousness of the law. Again, we must observe the description he gives of good and holy teachers: that not only by words, but chiefly by the example of life, they exhort men to keep the law.
From the Harmony of the Evangelists, by John Calvin